Tokyo’s 438 year old market

It all started way back in the year 1578 when Tokyo was nothing more than agricultural land dotted with a few castles. Odawara Castle, close to Mt Fuji, was under control by the prominent Late Hojo clan. They had an alliance with many smaller warlords and ruled the entire region including present-day Tokyo.

Wanting a place where they could buy and sell agricultural equipment and products, the farmers in the area gained permission from the Late Hojo clan to start up a tax-free market. The market was positioned along a main highway that linked 2 or 3 different warlords’ territories. When it opened, “Rakuichi” was held 6 times a month and was immensely popular. At its peak, there were around 2,000 stalls.

Over the years, many battles took place and each time some of the farmers would lose their land or even their lives, and the market, too, would be forced to close. But it never completely died. So long as there were farmers, the market would reopen and trading would continue.

By the late 1800s, however, the market had become not much more than a nostalgic event. It was decided that the market would be held over just 4 days each year – December 15, 16 and January 15, 16 – and it has been that way ever since.

Today, Setagaya Boroichi flea market is made up of about 600~700 stalls. A lot of the vendors have been coming here for years, and actually this is the only time some of them set up shop. Thousands of people pack the narrow streets, hunting for bargains and one-off antiques. The agricultural equipment have been replaced by everything from old kimonos to traditional ceramics to samurai swords! The crowds are a little intense, even for Tokyo standards, and you will probably lose your friends within 5 minutes of arriving, but a trip to the Boroichi is treasure hunting at its finest!

The Life of a Plum Blossom

Plums, called ume in Japanese, are arguably more a part of Japanese culture than the cherry blossoms. The sakura are so short-lived that I feel like if you blink you’ll miss them, and then it’s all over for another year. Whereas the plum blossoms stick around for a good month or more. But not only is the flower popular, the plum fruit itself is well integrated into Japanese cuisine! You are guaranteed to find an umeboshi (pickled plum) in almost every bento lunch box, sitting on top of the rice. It’s too sour for me, though. My hiking buddies often snack on sour, dried plums as an energy boost! Another common way to have it is as furikake seasoning sprinkled on top of your rice. You can not only eat it, but drink it, too. Umeshu is sweet alcohol made with plums and is always listed on the drink menu at restaurants (I love it!).

While the famous cherry blossoms bloom when the weather is much warmer, the plum blossoms start to show their faces towards the end of winter. I actually saw the first plum blossoms just starting to bloom in mid-January! Since early February, they have taken over the streets and parks of Tokyo. Lots of public gardens have official plum festivals, but you don’t necessarily need to go to those places to see these beautiful flowers. There are so many trees randomly all over the place, in people’s backyards, next to train tracks, even growing in alleyways! The flowers range from white to pink to red to yellow. They are like splashes of colour all over the city.

Looking through the photos I’d taken over the past month, I noticed there were lots of images showing the different stages of blooming. I think the little buds are adorable! And then, when they burst into life, it’s really a spectacular vision. One day I want to do a timelapse video of this! For now, I’ve decided to do a little ‘life of a plum blossom’ photo story. Enjoy!

Hanegi Park
The beginning – the birth of a flower.
Hanegi Park
The first burst.
Hanegi Park
Searching for sunlight.
Hanegi Park
Slowly opening their eyes after a long slumber.
Hanegi Park
Welcome to the world!
Hanegi Park
Altogether, they bask in the sunlight.

Then, everyone joins the party! The whole park comes alive with a distinct, sweet fragrance filling the air!…

The flowers stay like this for a few weeks before falling to the ground. Then it’s time for the fruit to grow!

I don’t remember enjoying the plum blossoms as much in any other year I’ve been in Japan. For some reason this year I’ve really taken notice of them. I love how they have the power to draw so many people, but at the same time they make each person slow down and stay a while to enjoy their beauty and sweet smell. Nature is pretty remarkable!

The Best Views in Life are Free

Tokyo is one of those cities that you could never get sick of. It’s vast, fast-paced and exciting! There are so many ‘pockets’ that each offer something different. If you’re into fashion head to Shibuya; for museums head to Ueno; for books head to Jimbocho; for vintage shops head to Shimokitazawa, etc etc.

I love being a tourist in my own city. Whenever I have some free time, I’ll try go somewhere I haven’t been before. But sometimes I gotta make sure I’m not spending more than I’m earning! Shopping, going to museums and eating out all cost money, but Tokyo doesn’t have to be expensive. There are plenty of things to do which won’t cost you a thing. Many of my friends love to hang out at Yoyogi Park which is open to the public 24/7. In summer, there are huge fireworks shows on basically every weekend. And there are thousands of cultural street festivals that take place all year round!

When you live in your little part of the city, you get used to going to the same supermarkets, same cafes, same dry cleaners. Some of those shopkeepers know your face and may even know your name. Most weeks, there’s not much need to leave your suburb! When you head up to a 20th floor observation deck, you quickly realize that your little area is in fact just a pinhead compared to the entire city! Sure, it makes you feel a bit smaller, but I think it’s also comforting to know there are millions of people in the same position as you! I also just love reminding myself how damn massive Tokyo is!

Here are some of the top observation decks in Tokyo city you can check out for the grand price of zero yen :-)

Hikarie, Shibuya ward

Observation Deck: 11th floor (70m)

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, Shinjuku ward

Observation Deck: 45th floor (202m)

Bunkyo Civic Center, Bunkyo ward

Observation Deck: 25th floor (105m)

Carrot Tower, Setagaya ward

Observation Deck: 26th floor (124m)

Weekly Photo Challenge: Scale The size of one human compared to an entire city is mind boggling!

Snowy Tokyo

I love having Fridays off work, but today is extra exciting!! I’m sitting here in a café 26 floors up. Looking out of these giant glass windows, all I can see is a vast sea of ‘white’! It’s bizarre but very cool seeing snowy roof tops in Tokyo. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was snow country, but it actually only snows a few days a year.

Snowy Tokyo

Snowy Tokyo

I woke up this morning to the delightful sound of snow crunching under people’s boots. It has since turned into icy rain, but a beautiful mist is left hovering over the city. From inside this warm cafe, it actually looks quite cozy out there, like we’re inside of a fluffy cloud. With visibility only a few kilometres, Tokyo has suddenly become quite small!

This morning, I visited Shoin-jinja, a shrine built in the 1880s. It was originally dedicated to Master Shoin, a teacher of military strategies and tactics, who was killed when he was 30. These days, it’s dedicated to the God of Learning and apparently many people come from all over to pray for success with their studies. Shrines feel so much more peaceful covered in snow. I always feel like I should tread softly!

There’s just something intriguing about snow. Maybe it’s to do with the change it brings. It completely transforms a place that you have gotten used to seeing every day. I know there might be some people reading this who are currently 5-feet deep in snow and wishing they were anywhere else, but when it’s not something you’re used to seeing, it’s like that feeling you got as a child waking up on Christmas morning! My inner child wants to run out and build a snowman or start a snow ball fight! I love seeing kids wide-eyed in wonder when they see all those beautiful snowflakes falling from the sky.

After all those pictures of a grey concrete city covered white snow, I leave you with these bright and cheerful flowers.
Have a great weekend everyone!

Snowy Tokyo

Sakura: Short and Sweet

The cherry blossoms have almost all disappeared now. I feel like it was over before it even started! I guess that’s part of their charm – their beauty is fleeting. Seeing the petals fall off the trees and get swept away by the wind is always sad. Most years, the sun does a good job of bringing a much welcomed warmth to push out winter, but this year, the cold has persisted and the chilly nights are still lingering. The weather has been up and down, teasing us for weeks with a few warm days. I’ve only recently stopped using my heater. Hopefully I can put it away for good. Dammit, I’m ready for summer! … I might regret saying that come August.

Going snowboarding at the start of April meant missing the peak of the sakura in Tokyo. I had an awesome time in Hokkaido, so I don’t regret it at all, but it just shortened the already short time we have to see the flowers! To give you more of an idea on just how brief their life is… The season officially started on March 25. This is when the buds first started to open up. The peak was predicted to be April 5, but the forecasters can never be 100% accurate, and in the end, full bloom was declared on March 30. By April 8, about 50% of the petals had fallen, and by April 10 it was basically all over in Tokyo.

There are actually hundreds of varieties of sakura trees. Some bloom earlier, while others bloom well after the main varieties have long gone. Even though it’s already coming to the end of April, there are still one or two late blooming varieties that can be spotted here and there. The varieties differ not only by blooming time, but also colour, number of petals, shape of the petals and shape of the tree. And of course, depending on where in the country they are, they bloom either in March (southern Japan), April (central Japan) or May (northern Japan).

March 16 @ Setagaya

Setagaya blossoms
Kawazu-zakura: early spring bloomer

March 29 @ Naka-Meguro

April 5 @ Setagaya

Sakura-lined entrance
Sakura-lined entrance

April 6 @ Akiruno & Fussa, Western Tokyo

April 8 @ Meguro

April 10 @ Showa Memorial Park, Tachikawa

April 10 @ Koganei Park

April 12 @ Lake Sagami, Kanagawa

April 16 @ Setagaya

Tokyo’s Snowpocalypse

What a weekend! I prayed for snow and got a blizzard! It started coming down at about 3:00am Saturday morning (I know, because I was still up from the night before, waiting in anticipation!). After a few hours sleep, I woke up at about 7:30am, jumped out of bed and threw the curtains open, wild with excitement! What I saw, however, was not nearly as spectacular as I was expecting… basically, it just looked like mother nature had given the ground a light dusting of sugar. I thought to myself, “well, that was disappointing”. But there was no way I could have gone back to bed at that point… in fact, the adrenaline got me through the entire day without even feeling tired. For a girl who needs her 8 hours, that was pretty remarkable.

Mid-morning, the winds had picked up and the snow was starting to accumulate. The forecasters had predicted a blizzard late afternoon/early evening, so I knew it was now or never! I bundled myself up in my warmest clothes, threw on my rain boots and off I went. I left my house feeling on top of the world, eager to explore my wonderfully transformed neighbourhood. Everywhere was just so beautiful. How much does snow change the landscape! I went to a famous shrine in the area, Gotokuji, and was blown away by how magnificent the wooden pagoda looked against all that white. THAT is really something not many people get to see!

It was all so magical but the weather was increasingly getting worse. A couple of hours later, I returned home; cold, wet and numb! I could barely press the shutter button on my camera. It was worth it though. The snow continued all afternoon, getting heavier and heavier. It finally came to an abrupt stop around 10:00pm, and was replaced by rain. Boo.

Snow Timeline

Snow Timeline

By Sunday morning, half of the snow had been washed away – either by the rain, or people cleaning up. The sun was out and the sky was blue. I was tempted to stay under my warm kotatsu (heated table), but all I could think about was going out to take more photos! Gotta make the most of every opportunity, right! So I headed to Shinjuku for the day.

The storm ended up being the worst to hit the region in 45 years. The 27cm of snow in Tokyo caused trains and buses to be cancelled, planes to be grounded, workplaces to shut down, and the whole city to go on lockdown. It was an epic 24-hour ‘snow apocalypse’!